Text

Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Are too many students going to college?

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article asking Are too many students going to college? Having recently taught some large lecture classes in physics for non-scientists, I am quite interested in this question. For related discussion, see Higher education and human capital.

Here are some answers provided by Charles Murray, our favorite education curmudgeon, to the questions asked in the article.

Who should and shouldn't go to college?

Charles Murray: It has been empirically demonstrated that doing well (B average or better) in a traditional college major in the arts and sciences requires levels of linguistic and logical/mathematical ability that only 10 to 15 percent of the nation's youth possess. That doesn't mean that only 10 to 15 percent should get more than a high-school education. It does mean that the four-year residential program leading to a B.A. is the wrong model for a large majority of young people.

[Gee... how would you empirically demonstrate this? You'd have to have some method for actually "measuring" cognitive ability. But surely that's not possible -- only in science fiction! Why, the things you could accomplish if that were possible...]


Economists have cited the economic benefits that individual students derive from college. Does that still apply?

Murray: A large wage premium for having a bachelor's degree still exists. For everything except degrees in engineering and the hard sciences, I submit that most of that premium is associated with the role of the B.A. as a job requirement instead of anything that students with B.A.'s actually learn. The solution to that injustice—and it is one of the most problematic social injustices in contemporary America—is to give students a way to show employers what they know, not where they learned it and how long it took them. In other words, substitute certifications for the bachelor's degree.


Who should pay for students to attend college?

Murray: Ideally, students themselves. If that means delaying college for a few years to save money, so much the better—every college professor has seen the difference in maturity and focus between kids straight out of high school and those who have worked or gone into the military for a few years. The ideal is unattainable. But somehow we've got to undermine the current system whereby upper-middle-class children go to college without having to invest in it.


I particularly like the comment below from an insightful (see, especially, his comments on calculus) UT Austin student (Plan II?).

Too many are attending and I agree full-heartedly with Mr. Murray that only 10% of college-aged individuals should be attending University.

I saw firsthand the results of this phenomenon deeply entrenched in the lecture halls of my particular University and was perplexed at the levels of incompetence and lack of passion towards subject material shown by many of my fellow students. I wondered if anyone else shared my particular insights and was relieved to find Mr. Murray and his supporters waiting for me with open arms, telling me, "you are not alone".

I don't doubt the value of a hard science or engineering education, the students who remain in those fields are for the most part, fairly smart, and whose work and learning will benefit our society. (Though there are too many unqualified individuals who think being a doctor is a cool and easy job where you make a lot of money with little work) Those students are quickly weeded out, as should be.

But in the less challenging fields such as most of the liberal arts, business, communications, I found the lack of intellectual spirit in my fellow students disturbing. The most common responses I encountered when asking about their choice of major and their reason for being at this particular school, their responses were as follows. Degree=Good Job. Football! (a valid point, as our team is the underdog this year in the BCS Championship game). Party=Drunk=Its COLLEGE!. Not one intellectually stimulated response about the faculty and resources offered by one of the top research universities in the nation. They had no passion for their subjects, they waltzed into class with glazed eyes, and danced out with a degree. Most have never checked out a book from the library. Spark-notes are their best friend.

I was stifled by the inadequate writing ability of many of my peers when I reviewed and edited their papers. Some of them could not even write at a middle school level, much less a college level. At a top 50 University, nonetheless. I can't even begin imagine how it is at lesser schools.

An unfortunate trend at my University is that a great majority of students will choose their classes simply based on the "logic" of pick-a-prof and grade distributions. The most popular ones are the ones that give lots of A's. Few are actually interested in the topic of choice, and the unlucky ones get dropped into hard classes they don't want, skulking, sleeping, or skipping class entirely stifling the learning environment of people who are actually there to learn. Its also sad for Professors as well, because the truly excellent ones are browbeaten and criticized for their inability to gift A's onto undeserving students.

Grade inflation is through the roof here. I went to a challenging prep school where my best writings and most carefully thought out essays would usually only earn me high B's, with the occasional A. I thought University would be a challenge, but to my dismay, it has been anything but. I realized it when I quickly spat out some honestly dreadful essays for Philosophy and English Literature because I was in a rush, only to be rewarded with a sparkling 100 and rave comments. Really? Easy A's. Though according to most of my fellow students, these classes were incredibly difficult, the TA and professor were unfair graders, gave out too much reading, etc. Horrifying.

In Mathematics and Quantitative sciences it is the same story, though even our "honors students" seem ill prepared to handle the rigors of college level mathematics. Calculus is dumbed down so that the regular student can succeed. But even then, its still widely failed class even in its simplified state But that bodes ill, many people can "do" calculus, but few can understand its implications and applications. I can "do calculus" in the terms that I can memorize the concepts, complete practice problems, and repeat the ordeal on the test. But I can only apply its implications to the simplest of physical and economic problems. I'm not good enough to really UNDERSTAND calculus. I know that. But my ability to "do" calculus earns me an A+ at this University. And it really should not.

Too many kids are at college wasting their time. They are not happy with their studies, not happy with the debt they are piling on their heads to attend, but happy with the football team, and the plans for the weekend. They are here for the wrong reasons.

In physics 101 last quarter I gave A's or B's to almost 60 percent of the class, which I regarded as very lenient grading. (I guess if this were Brown or Stanford I could have given all A's with just a few punitive B's for the laggards at the bottom ;-) But nevertheless I had to field dozens of emails from aggrieved students complaining about their "low" grades! It makes me wonder whether everyone else (i.e., other professors, high school teachers, etc.) is engaged in grade inflation? It's certainly the easy way out -- I'm sure you get higher student evaluations if you tip off during the term that you're an easy grader. Who is holding the line?

Monday, December 28, 2009

The view from Clarium

Some interesting graphs from Clarium's August 2009 commentary. Clarium is the hedge fund run by Peter Thiel, of PayPal fame. (Click for larger images.)

Americans paying more to live longer. Per capita annual health care costs in 1960 were $1000 (real dollars) and life expectancy 70 years. Today per capita annual health care costs are $7000 and life expectancy 79 years. Many (most?) Americans are rich enough to willingly pay an extra $6000 each year (a total of over $400k!) for an additional decade of life expectancy, but it's not exactly an impressive result for 50 years of health care innovation.



The real cost of primary + secondary education has risen 3x in the last 30 years, but has this resulted in improved human capital? Not if judged by average (real) wages. (Or, perhaps the fruits of productivity gains have been stolen by the rich? The top 1% of wage earners have done extremely well over the same period :-)



Who is shaping the future? Global venture capital investment is dominated by the US, with China almost equal to Europe ex-UK. Israel is tied with the UK and leads on a per-capita basis.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Worst case scenarios and governance in China

While in China I asked a number of people the following question:

What is the worst case scenario for China in the next 10-20 years which has at least a 10 percent likelihood?

The respondents included professors, engineers and government officials. Interestingly, no one I asked mentioned social or environmental or economic collapse, or even conflict over Taiwan. More than one person did mention the possibility of trade conflict leading to runaway nationalistic response. But if that's the worst case scenario, I consider the future pretty bright.

One particularly insightful analysis from a Harvard-trained Tsinghua professor described the present Chinese system of governance as favoring stability and slow change. He noted that leaders, both at his university and within the central party, are elected by vote in a process involving numerous stakeholders. (The mechanics of this voting process, while apparently strict and rule-based, is kept secret from the general public. Exactly how this system evolved into being over the last 30 years was unknown even to our analyst, but it's easy to imagine that a system favoring stability would have been favored by people who clearly remember Mao and the cultural revolution.) The stakeholders represent a broad spectrum of interests, including those of retired former officials and, in the case of his university, prominent former professors and administrators. To avoid a veto from any particular interest group, leaders tend to favor consensus and to eschew extreme positions. Significant change can only occur after consensus emerges among a substantial majority of stakeholders.

An example of an emergent policy shift is the recent government emphasis on reducing inequality and helping the rural population: apparently there is now a broad consensus that things have gone too far. Just a few years ago news stories often noted that modest school fees prevented peasant children from completing their education. On this trip, I was told that such fees have, at least theoretically, been waived. (Someone who knows the real situation should please let me know, but at least that is what I was told while in China.)

A consensus-driven system will tend to allow rather obvious problems to get out of hand, at least for while. If addressing the problem requires a significant policy shift, then action has to wait until essentially everyone agrees on both the problem and the solution! It's plausible to me that this governance model is consistent with recent Chinese actions (or inaction) related to the urban-rural divide, pollution and the environment, and (gulp!) dollar reserve accumulation. Nothing happens for a long time, but then, suddenly, policies can shift radically. This sounds unwieldy, though grappling with obvious but difficult problems isn't exactly something that our own system has been good at recently -- see, for example, fiscal deficits, health care, financial regulation, income inequality, energy policy, etc., etc.

For related discussion, see Is there a China model?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men 2009



Linus said it best in A Charlie Brown Christmas (Luke 2.14):

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Classical and Quantum Gravity 2009

The most read articles of 2009 in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity -- see under JULY :-)

JANUARY
What is a particle?
D Colosi and C Rovelli
http://www.iop.org/EJ/abstract/0264-9381/26/2/025002

FEBRUARY
Arithmetical chaos and quantum cosmology
L A Forte
http://www.iop.org/EJ/abstract/0264-9381/26/4/045001

MARCH
Local Hawking temperature for dynamical black holes
S A Hayward, R Di Criscienzo, M Nadalini, L Vanzo and S Zerbini
http://www.iop.org/EJ/abstract/0264-9381/26/6/062001

APRIL
The double pulsar system: a unique laboratory for gravity
M Kramer and N Wex
http://www.iop.org/EJ/abstract/0264-9381/26/7/073001

MAY
LISA Pathfinder: the experiment and the route to LISA
M Armano et al.
http://www.iop.org/EJ/abstract/0264-9381/26/9/094001

JUNE
Status of NINJA: the Numerical INJection Analysis project
L Cadonati et al.
http://www.iop.org/EJ/abstract/0264-9381/26/11/114008

JULY
What is the entropy of the universe?
P H Frampton, S D H Hsu, T W Kephart and D Reeb
http://www.iop.org/EJ/abstract/0264-9381/26/14/145005

AUGUST
Testing gravitational-wave searches with numerical relativity waveforms: results from the first Numerical INJection Analysis (NINJA) project
B Aylott et al.
http://www.iop.org/EJ/abstract/0264-9381/26/16/165008

SEPTEMBER
Polarized spots in anisotropic open universes
R Sung and P Coles
http://www.iop.org/EJ/abstract/0264-9381/26/17/172001

OCTOBER
Present status of the Penrose inequality
M Mars
http://www.iop.org/EJ/abstract/0264-9381/26/19/193001

NOVEMBER
The information paradox: a pedagogical introduction
S D Mathur
http://www.iop.org/EJ/abstract/0264-9381/26/22/224001

DECEMBER
Casimir energy and gravitomagnetism
F Sorge
http://www.iop.org/EJ/abstract/0264-9381/26/23/235002



What is the entropy of the universe?

P H Frampton, S D H Hsu, T W Kephart and D Reeb

http://www.iop.org/EJ/abstract/0264-9381/26/14/145005

Abstract. Standard calculations suggest that the entropy of our universe is dominated by black holes, whose entropy is of order their area in Planck units, although they comprise only a tiny fraction of its total energy. Statistical entropy is the logarithm of the number of microstates consistent with the observed macroscopic properties of a system, hence a measure of uncertainty about its precise state. Therefore, assuming unitarity in black hole evaporation, the standard results suggest that the largest uncertainty in the future quantum state of the universe is due to the Hawking radiation from evaporating black holes. However, the entropy of the matter precursors to astrophysical black holes is enormously less than that given by area entropy. If unitarity relates the future radiation states to the black hole precursor states, then the standard results are highly misleading, at least for an observer that can differentiate the individual states of the Hawking radiation.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

China photos

Sorry for the lack of posts -- I just returned from China, where blogging had to contend with the Great Firewall and a busy schedule. Below are some pictures from the trip -- click for larger versions.

Our "expedition" was led by a world famous Harvard mathematician, and included professors of economics, statistics, computer science and physics. The opportunity: to create a social science institute to observe and model the Chinese economy in real time using massive electronic data sets.

Hyatt Regency in Hangzhou:



Alibaba Group Headquarters in Hangzhou. I'm under NDA so I can't say too much, but the Alibaba Group is an impressive set of companies. The transaction volume on their Taobao (EBay-like) C2C site is estimated at around 2 percent of all retail sales in China this year, and should reach 5 percent within a few years. There are roughly 150 million users and 400 million items listed! All of the university students we met were Taobao users and many said it was their preferred method of shopping.



[I had some other photos of Alibaba headquarters here originally, but I guess I violated some corporate policies and they asked me to take them down! Below are some official photos of their building.]






Beijing: Wenjin Hotel in Tsinghua University Science Park -- next to Google China and Microsoft Research. If you squint you can see the Google logo in the picture below.

It was cold and windy in Beijing, but as a consequence we had sunny days with little noticeable air pollution. (See here for an air quality Twitter feed from the US embassy in Beijing. We did indeed have good air during our visit.) Traffic is, however, horrendous!










Our hotel was in Zhongguancun, the Silicon Valley of China, which includes the top two universities: Beijing University (Beida) and Tsinghua University. The leader of our expedition presided over the opening ceremony of the Tsinghua Institute of Mathematical Sciences. The hotel was crawling with world class mathematicians!

Below is a picture taken in the immense consumer electronics market in Zhongguancun, about a 20 minute walk from our hotel. Enter any of the buildings in this area and you'll be confronted with an army of salespeople trying to sell you laptops, cellphones, etc.



Ministry of Commerce. This meeting took place in a less affluent region of south Beijing where locals still burn coal for heat. For this reason, and because the region is in a slight valley, they tend to have a few bad air days a week, including the day of our visit. I could smell a distinct sulfurous odor in the air, and my eyes stung. The air quality provided a jarring contrast to the opulent surroundings at the ministry.




During a night off from lavish banquets and dinners in private dining rooms, I managed to meet with blogger maoxian, an expat Beijinger with a lot of insight about life and business in China.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Scientific Life: entrepreneurs

From The Scientific Life, by Harvard historian of science Steven Shapin. This book is full of realistic descriptions of the "late modern" scientific enterprise, and how it came to be. (Publisher synopsis, interview, talk.)

Many scientific entrepreneurs reject any notion that the transformation of knowledge into material products or marketable services is any less intellectually demanding, or that it requires any lesser degree of intelligence, than so called pure science. ... The problems may be diffusely framed -- how to raise finance, recruit and motivate people, organize the corporate environment, locate markets and identify competitors -- but, because of that, they can plausibly be seen as more intellectually demanding than the well-framed problems of academic science. Entrepreneurs may see themselves as having a broad vision of the world, contrasted to the narrowness and inwardness of their purely academic colleagues. They know how to do things about which their colleagues are clueless. It's a matter of experience, of course, but it may also be seen as a form of constitutional intelligence.

While I can't help but like this paragraph, I do think we should distinguish between intellectual ability and other sorts of abilities. Scientists who start and run companies may have a broader set of skills (leadership, negotiation, risk taking, communication, psychological insight, etc.) than the typical academic, but I wouldn't describe running a startup as more intellectually demanding than pure scientific research (at least not theoretical physics!).

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Open sesame!



Can anyone identify this corporate headquarters? Hint: it belongs to one of the largest tech companies in China. I'll be there for a meeting next week. (Click for larger version.)

I'm actually not sure how much I'm allowed to say about the meeting -- it will bring together professors from fields like math, computer science and economics to look at some big, big data sets :-)

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Red Dawn 2010




This time the invaders are Chinese! In the 1984 original, starring Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen, the US and China were allies and the invaders were Soviet and Cuban troops. ("Wolverines!")

More here, including Chinese reactions. Is this trailer for real? (Looks a bit low budget.)


Obama in Beijing (SNL):

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The intestinal fortitude of Freeman Dyson

The evening began ominously. Dyson had a stomach bug -- he declined to eat anything at dinner, and made several emergency trips to the bathroom. After dinner he fell asleep on a couch in the physics building. Facing a packed auditorium, with people sitting in the aisles and filling an adjoining overflow room with video monitor, the other organizers and I decided that we'd offer Freeman the chance to call the whole thing off when we woke him up. Luckily for everyone, he felt much better after the nap, and was obviously energized by the large and enthusiastic crowd. After we finished the Q&A, he turned to me and said "Well, your questions cured my bug!"

The questions we asked are listed below. You'll have to wait to watch the video in order to hear the answers!

[Video. Transcript.]

CAMBRIDGE

You write that scientists come in two varieties: hedgehogs and foxes. Foxes know many tricks, hedgehogs only one. Which kind of scientist makes the most important discoveries?

Of course, molecular biology was being born at that moment. But you advised Francis Crick, while he was still a physicist, that moving into biology might be premature. He didn’t take your advice did he, and a few years later he helped discern the structure of DNA? Mistake on your part?


MOVE TO AMERICA

You wrote that since childhood, some part of you had always known that the “Americans held the future in their hands and that the smart thing for me to do would be to join them.” Was that why you made your home in America? Do Americans still hold the future in their hands.

In the 50s, many people were fascinated with the potential of nuclear energy. Admiral Lewis L. Strauss, then Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, when he said: "It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy electrical energy in their homes too cheap to meter." Did you share this excitement?

There were plans to build a nuclear airplane that would fly for a year at a time and you got involved with a nuclear rocket project-- the Orion Project. Tell us about that.

Weren’t you involved in the project’s demise—the test ban treaty?


THE SCIENTIFIC PROCESS

Now about the nature of science. You write, “Science is an art form and not a philosophical method. The great advances in science usually result from new tool rather than from new doctrines.” Could you elaborate?

Physics leads to some pretty weird places. You were at Princeton when Everett proposed his "Many Worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics. Could you describe the reaction to his ideas then (including your own), and your present opinion?

It’s been said that Quantum Electrodynamics or QED is the most successful theory science has ever produced, having been verified in some cases to an accuracy of 12 decimal places. It was worked out by two geniuses, Feynman and Schwinger, but their theories looked totally at odds—one used diagrams the other formal analysis. In perhaps your most celebrated piece of physics, you showed they were equivalent. I’m curious, did Feynman and Schwinger grasp immediately what you had done?

You write, “Heretics who question the dogmas are needed... I am proud to be a heretic. The world always needs heretics to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies.” Do we need more heretics today?


WILD IDEAS

From science fact to science fiction. Your speculations about the future of humanity include the Dyson tree and the Dyson sphere. A Dyson tree is a genetically engineered plant capable of growing on a comet. You think comets are promising places for life..how so?

You've proposed that genetic engineering might be used for many purposes, from green energy to adapting humans for life in space…even to people growing their own dogs. Please tell us more.

What about engineering ourselves for greater intelligence; could that be the next leap forward in human evolution?


SCIENCE AND CULTURE

Jacques Hadamard said “It is important for him who wants to discover not to confine himself to one chapter of science, but to keep in touch with various others. ” Have scientists and mathematicians seized or squandered opportunities to learn from others in different disciplines?

To what extent should the public's view influence the path of science?

As a great observer of science, you’ve seen how science can evoke excessive hype and fear….has the negative public reaction to things like nuclear energy, GMOs, nanotechnology…has this surprised you?


SCIENCE AND RELIGION

Science and religion. There are scientists, like NIH chief Francis Collins, who believe in God and think religion is compatible with science. There are scientists, who are what you call passionate atheists—Hardy, Erdos, Dawkins, who think religion is a massive irrational distraction. You say that religion must be explored from the inside and those atheists, even very smart philosophers like Dan Dennett, will never understand it. How so?


In 2000, you were awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. You wrote, "I am neither a saint nor a theologian. To me, good works are more important than theology." What did you mean?


WRAP UP

We’ve spoken about science and religion, let’s end talking about technology. You write, “Technology is a gift of God. After the gift of life, it is perhaps the greatest of God's gifts. It is the mother of civilizations, of arts and of sciences.” In your lifetime, those gifts include biotechnology, computers, and the Internet. What gifts might lie in our future?

What would you be working on today if you were 25 years old?

I will report the answers to some of my dinner questions. About Dirac and the path integral, Dyson thought that Feynman's story was probably true -- Dirac did not know that the quantum amplitude and the exponential of the action were more than "analogous" (indeed, they are proportional) until after Feynman had worked it out. It was also Feynman who had the idea of the sum over classical paths. In Dirac's paper the exponential of the action might have been a quantum operator, like the time evolution operator, which is the exponential of the Hamiltonian.

In Dirac's paper he writes that the quantum amplitude and e^{iS} are "analogous". Later Feynman asked him directly about it (according to Feynman):

F: Did you know they are proportional?

D: Are they?

F: Yes.

D: Oh, that's interesting.

I also asked about the infamous night with Feynman in the hotel in Oklahoma, and Dyson confirmed the accuracy of Feynman's recollection :-)

Friday, December 04, 2009

Climategate and the American Physical Society

I got this email message today. Again, I haven't done my homework on this issue, so I don't have a strong opinion. But the signatories to this email and (I suspect) a fair number of APS members do.

Dear fellow member of the American Physical Society:

This is a matter of great importance to the integrity of the Society. It is being sent to a random fraction of the membership, so we hope you will pass it on.

By now everyone has heard of what has come to be known as ClimateGate, which was and is an international scientific fraud, the worst any of us have seen in our cumulative 223 years of APS membership. For those who have missed the news we recommend the excellent summary article by Richard Lindzen in the November 30 edition of the Wall Street journal, entitled "The Climate Science isn't Settled," for a balanced account of the situation. It was written by a scientist of unquestioned authority and integrity. A copy can be found among the items at http://tinyurl.com/lg266u, and a visit to http://www.ClimateDepot.com can fill in the details of the scandal, while adding spice.

What has this to do with APS? In 2007 the APS Council adopted a Statement on global warming (also reproduced at the tinyurl site mentioned above) that was based largely on the scientific work that is now revealed to have been corrupted. (The principals in this escapade have not denied what they did, but have sought to dismiss it by saying that it is normal practice among scientists. You know and we know that that is simply untrue. Physicists are not expected to cheat.)

We have asked the APS management to put the 2007 Statement on ice until the extent to which it is tainted can be determined, but that has not been done. We have also asked that the membership be consulted on this point, but that too has not been done.

None of us would use corrupted science in our own work, nor would we sign off on a thesis by a student who did so. This is not only a matter of science, it is a matter of integrity, and the integrity of the APS is now at stake. That is why we are taking the unusual step of communicating directly with at least a fraction of the membership.

If you believe that the APS should withdraw a Policy Statement that is based on admittedly corrupted science, and should then undertake to clarify the real state of the art in the best tradition of a learned society, please send a note to the incoming President of the APS ccallan@pr****ton.edu, with the single word YES in the subject line. That will make it easier for him to count.

Bob Austin, Professor of Physics, Princeton
Hal Lewis, emeritus Professor of Physics, University of California, Santa Barbara
Will Happer, Professor of Physics, Princeton
Larry Gould, Professor of Physics, Hartford
Roger Cohen, former Manager, Strategic Planning, ExxonMobil

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Climategate at Tierneylab

Be sure to look at the hundreds of comments!

Tierneylab: ... I’m not trying to suggest that climate change isn’t a real threat, or that scientists are deliberately hyping it. But when they look at evidence of the threat, they may be subject to the confirmation bias — seeing trends that accord with their preconceptions and desires. Given the huge stakes in this debate — the trillions of dollars that might be spent to reduce greenhouse emissions — it’s important to keep taking skeptical looks at the data. How open do you think climate scientists are to skeptical views, and to letting outsiders double-check their data and calculations?

People keep asking me about climate change, and I tell them I just don't have enough time to do the homework necessary to justify my having a strong opinion on the issue. Note, by simply making that statement I am being politically incorrect -- I think I am supposed to accept that the "experts" know what they are doing. (Just as the bond rating agencies and financiers knew what they were doing a few years ago :-)

Very few of the people with strong opinions on climate change have done the homework I refer to -- read the literature (including arguments on both sides), look at the data, etc. In the case of the housing and credit bubble I did do the homework and as a result I thought we were in a bubble back in 2004, that credit derivatives were dangerous, and that it might end badly.

I can say something with very high confidence: scientists are not immune to groupthink!


[A reader asks: what if you don't have the technical background to actually "do your homework" -- i.e., read the scientific literature? (Perhaps because your liberal arts education left you unable to use important tools necessary for understanding how the world works ;-) In that case, you are limited to an examination of the process by which the science is done -- are the incentives right? Could researchers be victims of groupthink? Can critics be heard, and do they have access to resources (such as the original data)? This is a sociological question -- is science working properly in this particular subfield? A final factor that should influence your confidence level is that the track record of experts studying complex systems is quite poor. ]

An evening with Freeman Dyson



This is turning into a bit of a production -- 4 HD cameras and professional editing will hopefully result in a nice documentary video. Click for larger version of poster.

See Questions for Dyson.



Monday, November 30, 2009

The long view and the great divergence






These figures are from lecture 1 of Economics 2328 at Harvard. (Click for larger versions.)

See also here and this podcast.

Lecture 1: The Emergence of Modern Economic Growth: A Comparative and Historical Analysis

The focus of this course is in trying to understand the pattern of world development in the long-run, starting with the Neolithic Revolution around 10,000 years ago.

The most dramatic fact is the relative evolution of income per capita vividly portrayed in the data by Maddison shown on the next slide. When I was a (British, and worse, British Empire) schoolboy we used to just call this the industrial revolution but now we call it the Great Divergence.

This terminology reflects a signifcant shift in emphasis away from explaining why the industrial revolution happened to why the technologies and methods of organization it generated diffused so unevenly across the world.

I've looked at some of economic historian Angus Maddison's stuff, and to me it seems like little more than guesswork. But the figures are pretty...

Early industrialization is bad for the average person -- it makes you nasty, brutish and short ;-) But in the long run, it's the way to get ahead.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Random microworlds: the mystery of nonshared environment

One of the most mysterious aspects of the nature-nurture question is the difficulty in characterizing the nurture component.

Turkheimer and Waldron: When genetic similarity is controlled, siblings often appear no more alike than individuals selected at random from the population. ... it has become widely accepted that the source of this dissimilarity is a variance component called nonshared environment.

... In what may have been the most influential article ever written in the field of developmental behavior genetics, Plomin and Daniels (1987) reviewed evidence that a substantial portion of the variability in behavioral outcomes could not be explained by the additive effects of genotype or the environmental influences of families. They suggested that this residual term, which they called the nonshared environment, had been neglected by environmentally oriented researchers who assumed that the most important mechanisms of environmental action involved familial variables, like socioeconomic status [SES] and parenting styles, that are shared by siblings raised in the same home and serve to make siblings more similar to each other. Indeed, Plomin and Daniels argued, once genetic relatedness has been taken into account, siblings seem to be hardly more similar than children chosen at random from the population.

In other words, despite a lifetime of proximity, your adopted child may bear no more similarity to you (in terms of, e.g., intelligence) than someone selected at random from the general population. The shared family environment that your children (biological or adopted) experience has little or no measurable effect on their cognitive development. While there are environmental effects on intelligence (the highest estimates of heritability for adult IQ are around .8, and some would argue for a lower value; see here for Turkheimer's work suggesting low heritability in the case of severe deprivation), they seem to be idiosyncratic factors that can't be characterized using observable parameters such as the parents' SES, parenting style, level of education, or IQ. It is as if each child experiences their own random micro-environment, independent of these parental or family characteristics.

The nonshared influences are by far the largest environmental (non-genetic) influences on intelligence -- in fact, they are the only detectable non-genetic influences. (Click figure for larger version; from a review by Plomin. More recent overview here.)



Identical twins, whether raised together or apart, turn out to be very similar, but one still finds differences in IQ and personality. The cause of those differences must be the different environments experienced by the twins, but can't be characterized by simple variables of the sort listed above: it is not the case that the twin raised by the higher SES family has, on average, a much higher IQ! In fact, twins raised in the same family are about as similar as those raised apart, so family shared environment does not produce a large measurable influence. See below for a plausible model that accounts for such outcomes.

By now these results are well understood and accepted by experts, but not by the general population or even policy makers. (See the work of Judith Rich Harris for popular exposition). The naive and still widely held expectation is that, e.g., high SES causes a good learning environment, leading to positive outcomes for children raised in such environments. However, the data suggests that what is really being passed on to the children is the genes of the parent, which are mainly responsible for, e.g., above average IQ outcomes in high SES homes (surprise! high SES parents actually have better genes, on average). Little or no positive effect can be traced to the SES variable for adopted children.

The implications are quite shocking, especially for two groups: high investment parents (because the ability of parents to influence their child's development appears limited) and egalitarians (because the importance of genes and the difficulty in controlling environmental effects seem to support the Social Darwinist position widely held in the previous century).

It is plausible to me that each child tends to create their own environment over time, by selectively seeking out or avoiding stimuli of various types. A bookish kid may end up at the library regardless of whether their father takes them there. An athletic kid may end up on the playground whether or not their mother takes them there. It has been argued that this effect is the reason that the heritability of IQ increases with age: over time, genetic influences assume greater importance as they cause the individual to create or seek out their preferred environment.

In a previous post I discussed individual cognitive profiles as described by an n-vector. Similarly, one could think of an individual's learning profile and learning environment as two more n-vectors. These n-vectors may or may not be well-matched, leading to outcomes with significant and hard to characterize variability. For example, one can imagine that both the environment (provided by parents, siblings, teachers and peers) and a particular child's reactions vary in each of the factors listed below.

Pressure and competition

Stimulation through stories and pretend play; flights of imagination

Ability to learn from repetition and drill / tendency to boredom

Isolated study vs group activities

Visual vs aural vs mechanical stimulation

Level of discipline or structure imposed

Close mentoring vs freedom of exploration

Abstraction vs experimentation

(One can think of many more.)

The factors listed are not intrinsically good or bad for learning -- what matters is whether the learning environment is matched to the nature of the individual child. Some react well to discipline or pressure or story telling, others do not. Further, none of the factors is obviously correlated with SES, parental education level or IQ. Even if they were, it's plausible that a child to some extent creates their learning environment outside the control of parents and teachers (e.g., through peer group or choice of play activities).

An individual whose learning vector (learning style) is well matched to their environment will thrive: the nonshared environmental component in their development will be large and positive. For others, the environment will have a smaller or even negative impact. Because both the learning vector and the environment vector vary in a many-dimensional space, and over time, prediction or control of the overall environmental effect on development is difficult.

Nonshared environmental contributions to development, which are the largest environmental contributions, are effectively random. They are not amenable to control, either by parents or policy makers. Note, this picture -- that each child creates their own environment, or experiences an effectively random one -- does not seem to support the hypothesis that observed group differences in cognitive ability are primarily of non-genetic origin. Nor does it suggest that any simple intervention (for example, equalizing average SES levels) will eliminate group differences. However, it's fair to say our understanding of these complex questions is limited.

Technical remark: if n is large, and factors uncorrelated, the observed environmental variation in a population will be suppressed as n^{-1/2} relative to the maximum environmental effect. That means that the best or worst case scenarios for environmental effect, although hard to achieve, could be surprisingly large. In other words, if the environment is perfectly suited to the child, there could be an anomalously large non-genetic effect, relative to the variance observed in the population as a whole. Of course, for large n these perfect conditions are also harder to arrange. (As a super-high investment parent I am actually involved in attempting to fine tune n-vectors ;-)

Environmental effects cause regression to the mean of a child relative to the parental midpoint. Parents who are well above average likely benefited from a good match between their environment and individual proclivities, as well as from good genes. This match is difficult to replicate for their children -- only genes are passed on with certainty.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

IQ, compression and simple models

I get yelled at from all sides whenever I mention IQ in a post, but I'm a stubborn guy, so here we go again.

Imagine that you would like to communicate something about the size of an object, using as short a message as possible -- i.e., a single number. What would be a reasonable algorithm to employ? There's obviously no unique answer, and the "best" algorithm depends on the distribution of object types that you are trying to describe. Here's a decent algorithm:

Let rough size S = the radius of the smallest sphere within which the object will fit.

This algorithm allows a perfect reconstruction of the object if it is spherical, but isn't very satisfactory if the object is a javelin or bicycle wheel.

Nevertheless, it would be unreasonable to object to this definition as a single number characterization of object size, given no additional information about the distribution of object types.

I suggest we think about IQ in a similar way.

Q1: If you had to supply a single number meant to characterize the general cognitive ability of an individual, how would you go about determining that number?

I claim that the algorithm used to define IQ is roughly as defensible for characterizing cognitive ability as the quantity S, defined above, is for characterizing object size. The next question, which is an empirical one, is

Q2: Does the resulting quantity have any practical use?

In my opinion reasonable people should focus on the second question, that of practical utility, as it is rather obvious that there is no unique or perfect answer to the first question.

To define IQ, or the general factor g of cognitive ability, we first define some different tests of cognitive ability, i.e., which measure capabilities like memory, verbal ability, spatial ability, pattern recognition, etc. Of course this set of tests is somewhat arbitrary, just as the primitive concept "size of an object" is somewhat arbitrary (is a needle "bigger" than a thimble?). Let's suppose we decide on N different kinds of tests. An individual's score on this battery of tests is an N-vector. Sample from a large population and plot each vector in the N-dimensional space. We might find that the resulting points are concentrated on a submanifold of the N-dimensional space, such that a single variable (which is a special linear combination of the N coordinates) captures most of the variation. As an extreme example, imagine the points form a long thin ellipse with one very long axis; position on this long axis almost completely specifies the N vector. (See these slides for more explanation and some figures.)

What I've just described geometrically is the case where the N mental abilities display a lot of internal correlation, and have a dominant single factor that arises from factor analysis. This dominant factor is what we call g. Note it did not have to be the case that there was a single dominant factor -- the sampled points could have had any shape -- but for the set of generally agreed upon human cognitive abilities, there is.

(What this implies about underlying brain wetware is an interesting question but would take us too far afield. I will mention that g, defined as above using cognitive tests, correlates with neurophysical quantities like reaction time! So it's at least possible that high g has something to do with generally effective brain function -- being wired up efficiently. It's now acknowledged even by hard line egalitarians that g is at least partly heritable, but for the purposes of this discussion we only require a weaker property -- that adult g is relatively stable.)

To summarize, g is the best single number compression of the N vector characterizing an individual's cognitive profile. (This is a lossy compression -- knowing g does not allow exact reconstruction of the N vector.) Of course, the choice of the N tests used to deduce g was at least somewhat arbitrary, and a change in tests results in a different definition of g. There is no unique or perfect definition of a general factor of intelligence. As I emphasized above, given the nature of the problem it seems unreasonable to criticize the specific construction of g, or to try to be overly precise about the value of g for a particular individual. The important question is Q2: what good is it?

A tremendous amount of research has been conducted on Q2. For a nice summary, see Why g matters: the complexity of ordinary life by psychologist Linda Gottfredson, or click on the IQ or psychometrics label link for this blog. Links and book recommendations here. The short answer is that g does indeed correlate with life outcomes. If you want to argue with me about any of this in the comments, please at least first read some of the literature cited above.

From Gottfredson (WPT = Wonderlic Personnel Test):

Personnel selection research provides much evidence that intelligence (g) is an important predictor of performance in training and on the job, especially in higher level work. This article provides evidence that g has pervasive utility in work settings because it is essentially the ability to deal with cognitive complexity, in particular, with complex information processing. The more complex a work task, the greater the advantages that higher g confers in performing it well.

... These conclusions concerning training potential, particularly at the lower levels, seem confirmed by the military’s last half century of experience in training many millions of recruits. The military has periodically inducted especially large numbers of “marginal men” (percentiles 10-16, or WPT 10-12), either by necessity (World War II), social experiment (Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s Project 100,000 in the late 196Os), or accident (the ASVAB misnorming in the early 1980s). In each case, the military has documented the consequences of doing so (Laurence & Ramsberger, 1991; Sticht et al., 1987; U.S. Department of the Army, 1965).

... all agree that these men were very difficult and costly to train, could not learn certain specialties, and performed at a lower average level once on a job. Many such men had to be sent to newly created special units for remedial training or recycled one or more times through basic or technical training.

Limitations and open questions:

1. Are there group differences in g? Yes, this is actually uncontroversial. The hard question is whether these observed differences are due to genetic causes.

2. Is it useful to consider sub-factors? What about, e.g., a 2 or 3-vector compression instead of a scalar quantity? Yes, that's why the SAT has an M and a V section. Some people are strong verbally, but weak mathematically, and vice versa. Some people are really good at visualizing geometric relationships, some aren't, etc.

3. Does g become less useful in the tail of the distribution? Quite possibly. It's harder and harder to differentiate people in the tail.

4. How stable is g? Adult g is pretty stable -- I've seen results with .9 correlation or greater for measurements taken a year apart. However, g measured in childhood is nowhere near a perfect predictor of adult g. If someone has a reference with good data on childhood/adult g correlation, please let me know.

5. Isn't g just the same as class or SES? No. Although there is a weak correlation between g and SES, there are obviously huge variations in g within any particular SES group. Not all rich kids can master calculus, and not all disadvantaged kids read below grade level.

6. How did you get interested in this subject? In elementary school we had to take the ITED (Iowa Test of Educational Development). This test had many subsections (vocabulary, math, reading, etc.) with 99th percentile ceilings. For some reason the teachers (or was it my parents?) let me see my scores, and I immediately wondered whether performance on different sections was correlated. If you were 99 on the math, what was the probability you were also 99 on the reading? What are the odds of all 99s? This leads immediately to the concept of g, which I learned about by digging around at the university library. I also found all five volumes of the Terman study.

7. What are some other useful compressed descriptions? It is claimed that one can characterize personality using the Big Five factors. The results are not as good as for g, I would say, but it's an interesting possibility, and these factors were originally deduced in an information theoretic way. Big Five factors have been shown to be stable and somewhat heritable, although not as heritable as g. Role playing games often use compressed descriptions of individuals (Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, ...) as do NFL scouts (40 yd dash, veritcal leap, bench press, Wonderlic score, ... ) ;-)


It's a shame that I have to write this post at all. This subject is of such fundamental importance and the results so interesting and clear cut (especially for social science) that everyone should have studied it in school. (Everyone does take the little tests in school...) It's too bad that political correctness means that I will be subject to abuse for merely discussing these well established scientific results.

Why think about any of this? Here's what I said in response to a comment on this earlier post:
Intelligence, genius, and achievement are legitimate subjects for study. Anyone who hires or fires employees, mentors younger people, trains students, has kids, or even just has an interest in how human civilization evolved and will evolve should probably think about these questions -- using statistics, biography, history, psychological studies, really whatever tools are available.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?

Does being smart help you become rich?

Folksy Warren Buffett once said that an investor with IQ of 150 should sell 30 points to someone else, as anything above 120 is unnecessary.

Consider the following simple model (we can call it the "Igon Model" in honor of Malcolm Gladwell):

Igon Model: IQ correlates positively with wealth, but the effect goes away for IQ > 120. IQ above 120 provides no advantage, relative to IQ=120, for acquiring wealth.

Were this model to be true, one would expect with overwhelming probability to find that the vast majority of rich people have IQ around 120, but not much higher. This is because IQ is normally distributed: as you go further out the tail the population decreases exponentially. To be specific, IQ = 120 corresponds to the 90th percentile, whereas IQ = 135 is 99th percentile (i.e., only 1 in 10 people with IQ > 120 have IQ > 135) and IQ = 145 is 99.9th percentile (i.e., only 1 in 100 people with IQ > 120 have IQ > 145).

Now let's look at the 2009 Forbes list of richest people in the world:

1 William Gates III 53 40.0 United States
2 Warren Buffett 78 37.0 United States
3 Carlos Slim Helu 69 35.0 Mexico

If the Igon Model were correct, we would not expect to find this list dominated by people with IQ much higher than 120. But in fact we do. Note these three made their money in different ways: Gates founded a software company, Buffett is primarily an investor, and Carlos Slim is an oligarch ;-)

Bill Gates scored 1580 on the pre-1995 SAT. His IQ is clearly >> 145 and possibly as high as 160 or so.

Warren Buffett graduated high school at 16 ranked in the top 5 percent of his class despite devoting substantial effort to entrepreneurial activities. Most people who know him well refer to him as brilliant, that folksy quote above notwithstanding. I would suggest the evidence is strong that his IQ is above 135, perhaps higher than 145.

Carlos Slim studied engineering and taught linear programming while still an undergraduate at UNAM, the top university in Mexico. He reportedly discovered the use of compound interest at age 10. I would suggest his IQ is also at least 135.

So it would appear that the three richest men in the world all have IQs that are higher than 90 percent or even 99 percent of the > 120 IQ population. (Relative to the general population they are all likely in the 99th or even 99.9th percentile.) The probability of this happening in the Igon Model is less than 1 in 1000.

[Here's a basketball analogy: the analogous Igon Model for basketball would say height over 6ft2 (90th percentile) doesn't increase likelihood of success in basketball. Suppose we find the 3 top players in the world are 7ft (Shaq/Gates), 6ft8 (LeBron/Buffett) and 6ft6 (Kobe/Slim). That strongly disfavors the model, as a random draw of 3 people from the set of people over 6ft2 in height has almost zero probability of producing the 3 heights we found.]

Note to angry Gladwell egalitarians: don't take this analysis too seriously :-) It's really an example of "Igon analysis" in the spirit of MG!

There are many factors aside from intelligence that impact success in business or investing. See here for a discussion by money manager and investment theorist William Bernstein, which is very similar to what Buffett has said on various occasions. If you carefully study biographies of the three men listed above, what really stands out (aside from high mental ability) is their determination, drive and fascination with material success beginning at a young age. See also: success vs ability and creators and rulers.

What about the broader population? It's well established that graduates of elite universities earn more than graduates of less selective schools. But, interestingly, controlling for SAT score (IQ) largely eliminates the differential. I wonder why? (See also here for UT Austin data on earnings variation with SAT and major.)

Fear and loathing of the plutocracy 2

Strangely we haven't heard much recently about impending gigantic Goldman bonuses. Once the issue hits the news radar again, I hope to see some detailed analyses of how, exactly, Goldman made its recent record profits.

At the link below you will find an analysis of Goldman's prop trading numbers for 2008 (not a good year), using the public records of its charitable Goldman Sachs Foundation. Thanks to a reader for sending this. I don't know how reliable this method is -- it all depends on whether GSF's records reflect the firm's overall trading pattern.

Zerohedge: ... Sometimes no capital is allocated to excluded strategies, but usually, and especially for product agnostic funds such as Goldman, each entity will be allowed its pro rata share based on the "fungible" capital that makes up the firm's entire Assets Under Management. Therefore, the GS Foundation ("GSF"), with its $270 million of capital at the beginning of 2008, would likely get its pro rata allocation as a percentage of the total capital backing the Goldman hedge fund (which can come from such places as Goldman Sachs Asset Management, and Goldman Sachs & Co., which in turn gets it funding via such taxpayer conduits as the Fed's repo operations and the Discount Window). So if Goldman for example had access to total capital of $50 billion last year (roughly), each trade, when allocated to GSF, would account for about half a percent (0.5%), absent special treatment, of the total capital invested or disposed. As an example, if Goldman were to trade $100 million notional in 10 year Index Swaps, GSF would thus be allocated about $500,000 of the trade.

Why is all this relevant?

Were one to comb through GSF's tax filings, one would uncover in 2007 over 500 pages worth of single-spaced trades, and over 200 in 2008, across absolutely every single asset class: equities, indices, futures, fixed income, currencies, credit swaps, IR swaps, FX, private equity, hedge fund investment, you name it (oddly absent are CDS trades). And this is in 2007 alone. These are a one-for-one proxy of absolutely every single trade that Goldman executed in its capacity as a prop trader in the last two years. The only question is what is the proration multiple to determine what the appropriate P&L for the entire firm would have been based on any one single trade allocated to GSF, and subsequently, disclosed in the foundation's tax forms.

... Yet what is obvious no matter how the data set is sliced and diced, is that the firm was bleeding money across virtually all prop-traded groups in 2008. Is it any wonder that the firm's only source of revenue is courtesy of i) the near-vertical treasury curve (thank you taxpayers) and ii) the ability to demand usurious margins on Fixed Income and other products from clients trading in bulk who have no other middleman choices.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What it was like

Some WWII book recommendations. Lately, I've been most interested in first hand accounts, or novels written by those who actually experienced the war. Soon everyone who did will be gone.

Related posts: Bitter Defeat, Les Bienveillantes: The Kindly Ones.

Unfortunately some of the books listed below are hard to find, unless you have access to a good library.

Curzio Malaparte: The novels Kaputt and The Skin are worth reading, but The Volga Rises in Europe, which is a collection of dispatches from the Eastern Front, is priceless. His dispatches were censored, but have been collected with the author's additional comments.

Ernst Junger: The Details of Time (interview), Chatwin profile in NY Review of Books. I had high hopes for his journals, particularly his recollections of occupied Paris and trips to the east, but they are a bit disappointing.

Tapping Hitler's Generals: Transcripts of Secret Conversations, 1942-1945. Farm Hall for captured German generals. Who knew what, when? More here. Those tricky Englanders!

Life and Death in the Third Reich: a historian confronts the hard questions. Diaries and letters reveal the attitudes of average Germans. Excellent interview (podcast). Was Goldhagen right?

Ka-Tzetnik: The House of Dolls. Only if you have a strong stomach. It's pulp, but Feiner can write.

The Sound of His Horn: Science fiction, but deeply disturbing. Read online. More here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Follow that igon value!

Perhaps fittingly, the first use of "igon value" was in a profile of (then obscure) hedge fund philosopher Nassim Taleb. (See earlier post Pinker on Gladwell.)

New Yorker, April 22 & 29, 2002: [this version retrieved from gladwell.com] ... As the day came to an end, Taleb and his team turned their attention once again to the problem of the square root of n. Taleb was back at the whiteboard. Spitznagel was looking on. Pallop was idly peeling a banana. Outside, the sun was beginning to settle behind the trees. "You do a conversion to p1 and p2," Taleb said. His marker was once again squeaking across the whiteboard. "We say we have a Gaussian distribution, and you have the market switching from a low-volume regime to a high-volume. P21. P22. You have your igon value." He frowned and stared at his handiwork. The markets were now closed. Empirica had lost money, which meant that somewhere off in the woods of Connecticut Niederhoffer had no doubt made money. That hurt, but if you steeled yourself, and thought about the problem at hand, and kept in mind that someday the market would do something utterly unexpected because in the world we live in something utterly unexpected always happens, then the hurt was not so bad. Taleb eyed his equations on the whiteboard, and arched an eyebrow. It was a very difficult problem. "Where is Dr. Wu? Should we call in Dr. Wu?"

I doubt the New Yorker and its famous fact checkers caught the error. Possibly not a single New Yorker employee knows any linear algebra. Who needs all that geeky math stuff? [Update: Apparently the New Yorker did correct the electronic version now available on its site, although one can find references to the error online in 2003. See here and comments below for more.]

Leave it for the Asians like Dr. Wu... :-)

... a man whom Taleb refers to, somewhat mysteriously, as Dr. Wu wandered in. Dr. Wu works for another hedge fund, down the hall, and is said to be brilliant. He is thin and squints through black-rimmed glasses. He was asked his opinion on the square root of n but declined to answer. "Dr. Wu comes here for intellectual kicks and to borrow books and to talk music with Mark," Taleb explained after their visitor had drifted away. He added darkly, "Dr. Wu is a Mahlerian."

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Pinker on Gladwell

Ouch!

Thanks to a reader for pointing out this Steve Pinker review of Malcolm Gladwell's latest collection in the Sunday Times. I had more or less stopped reading stuff on Gladwell, as the uncritical acceptance of many of his claims is just too depressing a reminder of the mediocrity of our commentariat.

An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “saggital plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

...

The common thread in Gladwell’s writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favor of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition. For an apolitical writer like Gladwell, this has the advantage of appealing both to the Horatio Alger right and to the egalitarian left. Unfortunately he wildly overstates his empirical case. It is simply not true that a quarter­back’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros, that cognitive skills don’t predict a teacher’s effectiveness, that intelligence scores are poorly related to job performance or (the major claim in “Outliers”) that above a minimum I.Q. of 120, higher intelligence does not bring greater intellectual achievements.

My opinion of Malcolm Gladwell was expressed here:

Malcolm Gladwell shows exquisite taste in the subjects he writes and talks about -- he has a nose for great topics. I just wish his logical and analytical capabilities were better ... My feeling is that Gladwell's work appeals most to people who can't quite understand what he is talking about.

What Pinker refers to as the major claim of Outliers: IQ above 120 doesn't matter, is easily shown to be false. Randomly selected eminent scientists have IQs much higher than 120 and also much higher than the average science PhD (120-130); math ability within the top percentile measured in childhood is predictive of future success in science and engineering; advanced education and a challenging career do not enhance adult IQs relative to childhood IQ.

So, accomplished scientists tend to have high IQs, and their IQs were already high before they became scientists -- the causality is clear. 10,000 hours of practice may be necessary but is certainly not sufficient to become a world class expert.

I recently remarked to a friend that many aspects of psychometrics which were well established by the 1950s now seem to have been completely forgotten due to political correctness. This leads to the jarring observation that recent social science articles (the kind that Gladwell is likely to cover) are sometimes completely wrong headed (even, contradicted by existing data of which the authors are unaware) whereas many 50 year old articles are clearly reasoned and correct. The data I cite in the links above comes from the Roe study of eminent scientists and the Terman longitudinal study of gifted individuals, both of which were conducted long ago, and the SMPY longitudinal study of mathematically precocious youth, which is ongoing. I've interacted with many social scientists whose worldview is inconsistent with the established results of these studies, of which they are unaware.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Defining Merit

What should be the goals and responsibilities of a great university? Should it strive to maximize the future contributions of its graduates to humanity? Or should the university define its interests more narrowly, in terms of institutional prestige, social cachet and financial wealth?

Below are more excerpts from Jerome Karabel's The Chosen, an in-depth analysis of admissions at Harvard, Yale and Princeton in the 20th century. All of the excerpts are from Chapter 9: Wilbur Bender and his Legacy, which chronicles the late 1950's confrontation between elements of the Harvard faculty (often idealistic scientists), who wanted to place more emphasis on intellectual merit, and then Dean of Admissions Wilbur Bender, who was more narrowly focused on Harvard's institutional priorities. (If you find this post interesting, I highly recommend a look at the book. At the Google link above all of Chapter 9 is available.)

Although Karabel does an excellent job (see below) of characterizing the two sides of the argument, he does not examine the conflict in fundamental values between the scholar-scientists and Bender: the best and brightest for their future contributions to mankind, or the best for Harvard's future as an institution? To prepare "leaders" who will pursue power (some of which shall accrue, indirectly, to Harvard) or to prepare scientists and scholars who will create knowledge to be shared by all?

See also this earlier post: Creators vs Rulers.

... Brinton, a former Rhodes Scholar with a broad historic and comparative perspective on higher education, posed a sharp question to clarify the issue at hand: "Do we want an Ecole Normale Superieure, a 'cerebral school' aimed solely at preparing students for the academic professions?" Bender's answer was a resounding no. But to Wilson the matter was not so clear: the basic issue was which students "could take advantage of the unique intellectual opportunity which Harvard has to offer." In a barb clearly aimed at Bender, Wilson proclaimed that "he just did not accept potential financial return ... as the basis for showing favoritism to Harvard sons who were less well qualified academically than other admission candidates."

Having been under assault by segments of the faculty for almost two years, at first by Holton, then by Kistiakowsky, and now by Wilson, Bender apparently decided that he had had enough. In a meeting of the committee a month after this testy exchange, he announced his resignation as dean of Admissions and Financial Aids, and stated that he would prefer neither to affix his signature to the final report of the subcommittee nor to withhold his vote of approval. His departure was set for July 1, 1960, and he agreed to continue to meet with the subcommittee until it completed its mission.

It is interesting that Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS) features so prominently in Harvard's internal discussions. Along with Ecole Polytechnique, ENS is at the pinnacle of the strictly meritocratic French system of higher education. (See earlier post: Les Grandes Ecoles.)

The University of Chicago is an example of a school that followed the rigorous, meritocratic path, and suffered a consequential decline in social cachet and financial standing. Idealism damaged Chicago's position in the competition against Harvard and others. As one realistic Harvard commenter noted, one needs to "admit the bottom 10 percent to continue to attract the top 10 percent" -- even the intelligentsia value the social cachet of their alma mater.

... In a pair of letters that constituted something of a manifesto for the wing of the faculty favoring strict academic meritocracy, Wilson explicitly advocated admitting fewer private school students and commuters, eliminating all preferences for athletes, and (if funds permitted) selecting "the entering class regardless of financial need on the basis of pure merit." The issue of athletes particularly vexed Wilson, who stated flatly: "I would certainly rule out athletic ability as a criterion for admission of any sort," adding that "it bears a zero relationship to the performance later in life that we are trying to predict." He also argued that "it may well be that objective test scores are our only safeguards against an excessive number of athletes only, rich playboys, smooth characters who make a good impression in interviews, etc." As a parting shot, Wilson could not resist accusing Ford of anti-intellectualism; citing Ford's desire to change Harvard's image, Wilson asked bluntly: "What's wrong with Harvard being regarded as an egghead college? Isn't it right that a country the size of the United States should be able to afford one university in which intellectual achievement is the most important consideration?"

E. Bright Wilson was professor of chemistry and member of the National Academy of Sciences, later a recipient of the National Medal of Science. The last quote from Wilson could easily have come from anyone who went to Caltech! Indeed, both E. Bright Wilson and his son, Nobel Laureate Ken Wilson (theoretical physics), earned their doctorates at Caltech (the father under Linus Pauling, the son under Murray Gell-Mann).

For Bender, who loved Harvard, and had devoted much of his life to it ... "whether our eventual goal for Harvard is an American Ecole Normale, or the nearest approach to it we can get." In Bender's reading, "it is implied, but not directly stated" that Harvard should emulate this model, which admits students purely on the basis of their performance on an exam and serves as a training ground for many of France's leading academics and intellectuals. Professors, in particular, were especially prone to take this view: "My guess is that many, perhaps most, of the faculty would support such a policy, and many would assume that the case for it was obvious and irrefutable."

To Bender, however, the vision of a freshman class selected solely on the basis of academic criteria was nightmarish. "Would we have a dangerously high incidence of emotional problems, of breakdowns and suicides? Would we get a high proportion of rather precious, brittle types, intellectuals in quotes, beatniks, etc.?" "Do we really want," he continued, "a college in which practically everyone was headed for a career as a scholar, scientist, college teacher or research doctor?"

For his purposes -- the narrow institutional interests of Harvard -- Bender was absolutely right. Filtering purely by intellectual merit (as opposed to using a broader set of criteria, and several categories under which students are admitted) would not maximize Harvard's influence in government or business, or its financial wealth. Again see earlier post: Creators vs Rulers.

Bender also had a startlingly accurate sense of how many truly intellectually outstanding students were available in the national pool. He doubted whether more than 100-200 candidates of truly exceptional promise would be available for each year's class. This number corresponds to (roughly) +4 SD in mental ability. Long after Bender resigned, Harvard still reserved only 10 percent of its places (roughly 150 spots) for "top brains". (See category "S" listed at bottom.)

... To test his hypothesis that Harvard's most brilliant students were not its most "distinguished graduates," he [Bender] carried out his own study of exceptionally successful alumni.

The twenty-six men studied were a veritable Who's Who of the American elite: among them was a former secretary of defense, the president of Commonwealth Edison and Electric Bond and Share, the publisher of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, the senior partner of Davis Polk, and (not least) the general chairman of the Program for Harvard College. Twenty-two were private school graduates, with St. Paul's (four) and Groton (three) leading a list of the nation's most elite boarding schools. These men had not compiled particularly distinguished academic records at Harvard; the majority of them had relatively poor grades. A casual inspection suggested "a much higher than average participation by the above in athletic and other extracurricular activities" precisely the kinds of students likely to be excluded by the Ecole Normale model.

Harvard much prefers that its graduates ascend to positions of power, as opposed to graduates of Stanford or Berkeley. But do the differences between these schools have any effect on the actual quality of leadership? Does it matter to the Nation? Whose interests are at stake?

Bender, above all, loved Harvard. Professors like E. Bright Wilson were, for better or worse, much more idealistic: looking far beyond their home institution, they held knowledge itself preeminent.


Typology used for all applicants, at least as late as 1988:

1. S First-rate scholar in Harvard departmental terms.

2. D Candidate's primary strength is his academic strength, but it doesn't look strong enough to quality as an S (above).

3. A All-Amercan‚ healthy, uncomplicated athletic strengths and style, perhaps some extracurricular participation, but not combined with top academic credentials.

4. W Mr. School‚ significant extracurricular and perhaps (but not necessarily) athletic participation plus excellent academic record.

5. X Cross-country style‚ steady man who plugs and plugs and plugs, won't quit when most others would. Gets results largely through stamina and consistent effort.

6. P PBH [Phillips Brooks House] style: in activities and personal concerns.

7. C Creative in music, art, writing.

8. B Boondocker‚ unsophisticated rural background.

9. T Taconic, culturally depressed background, low income.

10. K Krunch‚ main strength is athletic, prospective varsity athlete. [ Sometimes also "H Horse" :-) ]

11. L Lineage‚ candidate probably couldn't be admitted without the extra plus of being a Harvard son, a faculty son, or a local boy with ties to the university community.

12. O Other‚ use when none of the above are applicable.

Blog Archive

Labels